Fri, Jul 28, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Mystery plane lands in Mogadishu


Somalis in Mogadishu look from a distance at the Ilyushin-76 plane which landed at Mogadishu airport on Wednesday.


A mysterious cargo plane believed to be loaded with weapons landed in the capital, setting off another round of allegations that Somalia's neighbors are using this chaotic Horn of Africa nation to fight a proxy war.

The US and other Western powers have expressed concern about Eritrea and Ethiopia meddling on opposite sides of the conflict in Somalia, which has no single ruling authority and can be manipulated by anyone with money and guns.

Somalia's virtually powerless government said the plane that landed on Wednesday was packed with land mines, bombs and guns from Eritrea and bound for an Islamic militia that has seized the capital and most of the rest of southern Somalia. Just hours later, a UN envoy confirmed Ethiopian troops were in Somalia to help the government, which controls just one town.

"Ethiopia and Eritrea are competing throughout the region, opening up new fronts in their Cold War whenever the opportunity arises," said John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflict zones.

Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a horrendously destructive border war from 1998-2000 and have backed rebel groups to destabilize each other in recent years. Somalia's transitional government has close ties to Ethiopia and the UN says Eritrea has reportedly backed the Islamic courts to counteract Ethiopia's growing influence.

The US also has been involved in the conflict in Somalia and has accused the Islamic militia of ties to Osama bin Laden's terror group. In recent tapes attributed to bin Laden, he urged Somalis to support the militants and warned nations not to send troops here.

The US secretly backed an alliance of warlords earlier this year when they tried to defeat the Islamic militia and capture three suspected al-Qaeda members who were allegedly hiding out within the group.

The warlords were defeated, and the US now supports the government.

It was not clear what role extremists from the wider Islamic world might play, though there have been repeated reports of foreign fighters among the Islamic militiamen. Journalists have obtained a recruitment video that shows Arab soldiers alongside Somali Islamic militiamen and encourages more Arab Islamic extremists to join the Islamic group.

Ethiopia and Eritrea deny being involved in Somalia, despite widespread witness accounts and reports by the UN.

In a report earlier this year, a UN committee monitoring the arms embargo on Somalia named Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen as countries backing the different factions fighting inside the country. Another country went unnamed, but was widely believed to be the US.

"Eritrea is only in there because of Ethiopia," said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somalia Justice Advocacy Center in St Paul, Minnesota.

He added: "The US is simply extending its war on terrorism."

Eritrea's information minister, Ali Abdu, told reporters on Wednesday that although his country was not sending arms to the Islamic militia, Ethiopia was "exploiting the current situation in order to solve their historical dispute with Somalia."

Ethiopia and Somalia fought a war in the 1970s, but Somalia's president is allied with the country and has asked for its support. Ethiopia's foreign minister was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.

"There are external parties involved on all sides," said Jendayi Frazer, the US State Department's top Africa official. "This is a problem."

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